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On This Day In Music… March 27, 2000: Ian Dury, Greatest Lyricist of his Generation, Dies

Dury's lyrics were by turns funny, tender, rude, cutting, romantic… and always whip-smart.

ian dury flat cap
Source: mega

Ian Dury - a unique combination of upfront cockney bolshiness, tender vulnerability and irresistible charm.

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“I ain’t a poet, I’m a lyricist,” Ian Dury once said. And although some might disagree, the distinction is important. For all that lines like: “Skinny white sailor, the chances were slender, the beauties were brief / Shall I mourn your decline with some thunderbird wine and a black handkerchief?” (from “Sweet Gene Vincent”) read beautifully on the page, it’s when you hear them delivered with Dury’s unique combination of upfront cockney bolshiness, tender vulnerability and irresistible charm, that they really come alive.

From the sublime – “You can’t bear another’s beauty, you can’t emulate a grace / You can’t filch another’s mystery, occupy another’s space / You can’t do another’s duty, or take a special place / In another person’s history when they’ve sunk without a trace,” (from “Jack S—t George”, on 1998’s Mr. Love Pants, Dury’s final album) – to the ridiculous (“Happy and Dopey are smoking a joint, Sneezy’s flaked out, he can’t see the point / ‘F--k this for a lark’ said Sweet Jack of Hearts, ‘Which one of you ba--ards has s--t on my tarts?’”, from “F—k Off Noddy”, a song Dury’s record company demanded he remove from 1984’s 4,000 Weeks' Holiday – his genius for lyrical dexterity remains unparalleled, 24 years after his death.

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ian dury live color
Source: Philippe Gras / Le Pictorium/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Punk provided a platform and an audience for Dury's unique stage persona.

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Ian Dury was born in May 1942 in either Middlesex or Essex, depending on which of Dury’s own stories you believe, and aged just seven was struck down with polio. The illness would leave him with a permanent paralysis and withering of his left leg, shoulder and arm. After years in hospital and at a special school for disabled children, he left the Royal High Wycombe Grammar School with three O Levels to his name, in English, English Literature and Art, and enrolled at the Royal College of Art, studying under Peter Blake.

Stints as an art teacher and graphic designer followed and in 1971 he formed his first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, and began to hone the defining influences in his life into something unique. Art, literature and the effects of his childhood polio would all be filtered through a uniquely skewed intelligence into his lyrics… and in the mid-70s the punk explosion finally provided a platform, and an audience, receptive to them.

“Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” was released as a single on the Stiff label in August 1977, and although it was banned by the BBC, it united the critics in praise; and after the album New Boots and Panties!! came out a month later, suddenly all Britain was exposed to Dury’s singular stage presence – and impeccably sharp wordplay. The album would eventually peak at No. 5 and sell over a million copies.

ian dury live bw
Source: mega

Dury's 1977 LP 'New Boots and Panties!!' would be certified Platinum.

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In April 1978 Dury scored his first Top Ten single, “What A Waste” (“I could be a lawyer with strategems and ruses / I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises / I could be a writer with a growing reputation / I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station”) and then the No. 1 “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and No. 3 “Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 3)”.

If nobody on Top of the Pops looked like Ian Dury, nobody in the world sang like him either. Against backing band The Blockheads’ seductive (and hugely accomplished) fusion of soul, disco, funk and jazz, his scattergun, razor-sharp observations on life came with a punky delivery, but also had humor, insight, and often a deeply affecting romantic edge.

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On the one hand there was the nudge-wink charm of “Billericay Dickie” – “Had a love affair with Nina / In the back of my Cortina / A seasoned up hyena could not have been more obscener” – and on the other, the deceptive intelligence hidden behind the humor of “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Ba—ards”.

Van Gogh did some eyeball pleasers.

He must have been a pencil squeezer.

He didn’t do the Mona Lisa,

That was an Italian geezer.

There ain’t half been some clever ba--ards...

Einstein can’t be classed as witless.

He claimed atoms were the littlest.

When you did a bit of splitting-em-ness

Frighten everybody s--tless.

ian dury
Source: mega

Dury performed live for the final time just one month before his death.

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As the 80s progressed, Dury maintained a huge and dedicated fanbase but never again enjoyed the same commercial success of his late 70s output. (Although, rather wonderfully, he is said to have turned down a commission from Andrew Lloyd Webber to provide the lyrics for Cats – a gig that would almost certainly have earned him millions – because, as he drily remarked, “I can’t stand his music”.)

After a 90s Blockheads revival resulting in two albums – 1992’s The Bus Driver’s Prayer & Other Stories and 1998’s Mr. Love Pants, Dury was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1996. Although a tumor was successfully removed from his colon, two years later further tumors were detected on his liver and he was given six months to live. Typically, obstinately, he kept writing and performing for another two years, before dying on March 27, 2000, aged 57.

“I was a painter for seven years, a successful illustrator for two years, and now I’m a rock ‘n’ roll singer,” he once told an interviewer. “I still feel I’m doing the same thing, but I’m not painting with paints.”


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